More than £100m of government cuts to annual arts funding has forced the nation’s top art galleries, theatres and opera houses to accept gifts from billionaires, including the controversial Sackler family, which made a fortune from the deadly opioid painkiller crisis.
A top art funding chief and Labour’s arts minister said austerity cuts have pushed galleries and institutions into relying on the generosity of wealthy benefactors.
It comes as three London galleries – the Tate, the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) and the South London Gallery – have this week severed ties with the Sackler family following protests from renowned cultural figures including the US photographer Nan Goldin and Sir Mark Rylance, the actor and former artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe. Goldin, who became addicted to the opioid OxyContin after being prescribed the drug for a wrist injury, had threatened to withhold a forthcoming retrospective of her work at the NPG if it did not hand back a £1m gift from the Sackler Trust.
Stephen Deuchar, a former boss of Tate Britain and current director of the Art Fund – the UK’s largest art fundraising charity – said a 13% decline in government funding over the past decade has “increased the need for private funding and naturally heightened the risks of taking it”.
Kevin Brennan, the shadow arts minister, said: “This Tory government’s ruthless austerity programme has slashed arts funding to the bone, putting arts institutions across the country in a difficult position. Arts and culture are central to our communities and should have the government support they deserve.”
Deuchar said research by the Art Fund and the Wolfson Foundation showed that public spending on museums and galleries in England has dropped from £829m a year in 2007 to £720m in 2017, the latest year with available statistics.
Theatres, opera houses and museums across the UK have also suffered deep cuts, according to separate research by the Arts Council, the government body that channels taxpayer and National Lottery funding into the arts. The Royal Opera House’s Arts Council funding has fallen by 15%, from £28.3m in 2010/11 to £24m in 2018/19. Funding to the Royal National Theatre also fell by 15% to £16.7m over the same period.
“The decline in public funding for museums has increased the need for private funding and naturally heightened the risks of taking it,” Deuchar said. “But most museums these days have ethics committees which help them manage these risks carefully, and provided they act responsibly on the basis of all known information at the point of decision about a prospective donation, I don’t think there is cause for alarm.”
But Christine Jardine MP, arts spokeswoman for the Lib Dems, said it was “deeply concerning” that venues were turning to “controversial donors to stay afloat”. She added: “It doesn’t need to be this way. We should demand better.”
The Tate, which has received more than £4m from Sackler family trusts, including £1m in 2008 and £1m in 2015, said this week: “In the present circumstances we do not think it right to seek or accept further donations from the Sacklers.” In return for their cash, the Tate renamed an escalator at Tate Modern the Sackler Escalator and a gallery at Tate Britain was named the Sackler Octagon. There are no plans to remove the Sackler name.
The proportion of the Tate’s income from government funding has significantly declined in recent years as the galleries have accepted more gifts from wealthy benefactors, including a record-breaking £50m from Ukraine-born US billionaire Len Blavatnik. In 2017 the gallery named its Switch House extension the Blavatnik Building. In 2016/17 the Tate collected £71.5m in donations and legacies, almost double the £40.3m in public grants, according to the latest government research on the effectiveness of its funding.
The South London Gallery, a popular contemporary art gallery, announced on Friday that it had returned a £125,000 gift from a Sackler foundation. Margot Heller, the gallery’s director, said: “The gallery’s board took a majority decision that it was in the best interests to return the grant.”
Sackler gifts to the arts on both sides of the Atlantic are under scrutiny because Purdue Pharma, a drugs firm owned by members of the Sackler family, is held partly responsible for the opioid crisis that has led to the deaths of more than 90,000 people over the past two years. The firm is facing US lawsuits alleging that it sold the prescription painkiller OxyContin as a drug with a low chance of causing addictions, despite knowing this was not true. The Sackler family has “vigorously denied” the allegations.
The Sacklers have donated about £80m to British arts institutions, theatres and universities. In return for the gifts from the Sackler Trust and the Dr Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation, the family’s name is prominently displayed. The branch of the family descended from Arthur Sackler has not profited from Purdue Pharma.
The National Gallery room where James Bond meets Q in Skyfall in front of a famous Turner painting was prosaically called Room 34 before the Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation donated £1m and it was renamed the Sackler Room.
The Victoria and Albert Museum’s new “decompression zone” outdoor space is named the Sackler Courtyard following a multi-million-pound donation. A spokeswoman for the V&A would not comment on the Sacklers’ gift, saying only: “We are grateful for the generosity of donors.”
On Sunday the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich will unveil the restoration of its baroque Painted Hall, which has been called “the Sistine Chapel of the UK”, with a new undercroft named the Sackler Gallery following a £500,000 gift.
There is also a Sackler Gallery at the Serpentine, the Sackler Studios at Shakespeare’s Globe, the Sackler Hall at the British Museum, the Sackler Serpentine Gallery and even the Sackler Crossing bridge at Kew Gardens.